Developed by the now-extinct Team Bondi, the 1940s’ detective thriller L.A. Noire is unlike anything I have played in modern gaming. Defined by its trademark MotionScan technology, through which the furrowed brows, exasperated glares, and wandering eyes of recognisable actors were torn straight from reality and pressed onto digital cadavers, players must either believe, doubt or accuse suspects across twenty-one cases during the most violent year in L.A.’s faithfully-recreated history. The game’s protagonist, the incorruptible beat-cop-turned-detective Cole Phelps, whose concern with results over politics instilled the player with a single-minded drive to restore order in the City of Angels, contextualised the city’s numerous crimes. Building on tropes of the genre, Phelps, much like the rest of the ailing metropolis’ denizens, buried himself into his work as a means of readjusting to everyday life after having presumably claimed many lives of his own when serving his country overseas during the Second World War.
Regardless of whether the player solves crimes associated with the homicide, vice or arson desk, L.A. Noire‘s core gameplay involves scouring exquisitely detailed interiors and exteriors to inspect clues alongside an assortment of scrupulous associates to bring justice to the post-war world. Questioning witnesses like a true sleuth and focusing on their tells, the slow, methodical pace of police investigations forced players to pay attention to every minute detail within an atmospheric and immersive Hollywoodland, and everything caught beneath its incendiary glow. Indeed, by dwelling on the worst of humanity and everything we are capable of, including an unflinching gaze towards attitudes of racism, bigotry and sexual assault, L.A. Noire was critically acclaimed for allowing players to confront the dishonesty in others in a sometimes nuanced and evidence-driven context.
Yet, of all the games that Rockstar have been involved with, L.A. Noire stands as the only title which failed to connect with me. By distilling the point-and-click adventures of the ’90s into a more contemporary framework and aesthetic, L.A. Noire had the potential to be the defining detective drama of today’s generation – using interactivity as its distinguishing characteristic. But rather than produce a franchise which served as an almost novelistic crime thriller, going beyond the influences of the noir published by James Elroy, L.A. Noire ultimately fell victim to spreading itself too thin. Its disparate mechanics of exploring, shooting, driving and questioning were mashed together into a repetitive, hollow, predictable, and sadly uninspired experience – one I have struggled to revisit in recent years. The world was gigantic but my access to it and my interest in it was mainlined towards barebones objectives day after day.
The nature of bouncing from case to case prevented the game from pursuing a singular identity which was fun to play from beginning to end. On one side of the spectrum, if the player disastrously interpreted clues cases would still resolve themselves to push the stagnant plot forward, whereas moments of cinematic flair – from arresting the wrong man or having a suspect run from the police – were forced onto the narrative. By having no agency over these set pieces, the game’s inconsistent ruleset proved frustrating. Moreover, the game’s overarching narrative was all but non-existent until its eventual momentum during the final section of the game is snubbed by an unsatisfying conclusion. There was no sense of consequence to my actions, and therefore I felt no responsibility in solving case after case because my own investigative process did not matter, aside from being given a better rank and fresh choice of outfit.
So, why do I want to see Rockstar Games develop a spiritual successor, if not a sequel of sorts, to this property? The answer is straightforward: the core mechanics simply need polishing before being moulded into a game which carries its own identity and can be described as an experience which is consistently exciting, engaging and surprising. Much like how Red Dead Redemption took the best bits of Red Dead Revolver before reapplying them to an open-world format which more accurately reflected the activities drawn from its Western source material, the successor to L.A. Noire must similarly undergo a transformative process in order to become the genre-defining game it deserves to be.
As such, I have two proposals in mind which would elevate the rather formulaic open-world detective game into something truly unique for the gaming landscape. The difference between these ideas is that one honours what made the original so beloved, and makes the noir genre so culturally significant, whereas the other betrays it in favour of more stylishly exploring what it means to be responsible for dispensing justice in an unjust world.
‘It Always Ends With Blood’
At its best, L.A. Noire presents the qualities of a mystery novel through the thoughts and flaws of its protagonist(s). For the series to evolve, future instalments must test our hero’s energy, morality and relationships to produce a more cohesive and enthralling experience. Otherwise, Phelps is left to climb the career ladder, solving crimes for the sake of it; there’s no meaningful impact for solving one case perfectly and another abysmally. In turn, everyday citizens, competing agencies, local media, and the outside world, must all be transfixed by the crime(s) being investigated for players to similarly be invested in the methods, actions and discoveries of their protagonist(s). When pressures like these are applied to our hero from all sides, the story can more compellingly explore how practitioners of law and order work towards finding a ‘plausible narrative’ of events when evaluating evidence whilst concurrently operating under such inflammatory scrutiny.
Therefore, any sequel or spiritual successor must position the mystery players are solving, and the partner they are solving it with, at the heart of every gameplay mechanic and story beat. Rather than focusing on multiple desks and a bewildering number of static inquiries, the spiritual successor (entitled, for the purpose of this piece, It Always Ends With Blood) would benefit from concentrating on just one overarching and nuanced crime which can be approached from multiple angles.
i) The World, its Crime, their Relevance and Real-World Inspirations
Ostensibly, It Always Ends With Blood focuses on the inter-agency search of fourteen missing foreign nationals who were presumably kidnapped from their hotel in the fictional Mexican state of El Cruce. When the hotel’s tour bus is found abandoned in the state’s outer fringe, international attention flocks to El Cruce and the U.S. dispatches it CIA investigators to locate the missing American, German, Italian and British tourists.
Plenty of existing criminal organisations – from drug cartels, business-driven institutions, and fraudulent operations engineered by the missing tourists themselves – are available from the outset as possible perpetrators of this crime, revealing the positive and negative aspects of El Cruce’s culture. Still, the region is heavily afflicted by various criminal enterprises and the blood money circulating throughout the state’s many private institutions. By setting the overarching mystery within a violent, dangerous and mysterious open-world setting, players will be naturally inclined to investigate their surroundings, interrogate suspects and engage in more action-orientated sequences. The biggest crime in L.A. Noire was that the late 1940s setting was noninteractive window dressing. By staging the crime in a world replete with novelty, the culture shock will allow for every intricate detail in Rockstar’s open world to be appreciated by the player – something which often goes undervalued by fans of their existing work.
The game would open like every other case in L.A. Noire, with a brief glimpse into the crime being enacted. Opening with a bus in the middle of nowhere being driven in the dead of night, players control one of eight men who share the vehicle with six women, riding as passengers in the vehicle. A range of emotions can be witnessed in this wordless sequence, including the muffled sobbing and panicked breaths of those around the player. Once the vehicle comes to a standstill, each of the fourteen individuals begins to undress before folding their clothes neatly onto their seat. In pairs, the nude passengers help each other wrap plastic bags around their hands and feet before zip-tying each other’s wrists and ankles to hold the bags in place. Then, one by one, the passengers march off the bus and pace out of frame, stricken with fear. Who they were, why they undressed, why they vacated the bus willingly, and where they went next, is up for the player to figure out.
‘There’s a reason people in this cesspit celebrate death.
Whole country’s a graveyard of MIAs.’ – Alicia Roberts
Inspired by the spree of unsolved kidnappings and disappearances which have taken place in Latin America over several decades, presumably under the extensive criminal influence of the cartels, It Always Ends With Blood would present players with modern-day equivalents to the organised crime syndicates alluded to in the original L.A. Noire. In turn, by having the threat be so wickedly evil and violent, with the Mexican army routinely conducting its own drug war in everyday locales, it’s more natural that players brandish body armour and wield firearms when entering poppy plantations or inner-city warehouses. Although the game doesn’t need to become a chaotic third-person shooter to compensate, drawing on the excellent mechanics honed by Max Payne 3, it does need to impress upon the player the reality that they are a stranger in a strange land and everyday rules of law and order that they are accustomed to are not necessarily recognised as a reality by the residents of El Cruce. The same goes for investigating criminal organisations that are not used to being threatened or exposed by the authorities. America’s ongoing engagement in the War on Drugs overseas, and the rampant accusations of CIA injustices in prolonging the influence of cartels, could also illuminate certain areas of the material.
Most notably, because the individuals are missing rather than dead, players know that the longer they take to solve the crime the more likely it is that the fourteen missing tourists in danger could be moved somewhere unthinkably evil (or lose their lives in the process). The plot is given a sense of urgency as media pressure and public scrutiny factor into your leading of the investigation. Even with the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, or poor Madeline McCann, I’m interested in seeing a game explore how such disasters can flood the rolling news for several weeks before being dropped as soon as a ‘better’ story emerges. Police cases take not days, but weeks and years. How would the memory of the ‘Forsaken Fourteen’ transform into the ‘Forgotten Fourteen’ as the player’s investigation goes on, and how would gameplay capitalise upon memory as a mechanic? What does it do to the protagonist? These are interesting questions the source material raises and games are distinctly capable of exploring, especially within the interactive detective genre.
ii) The Protagonist and their Partner
Focused on the sixteen-month partnership of a recently-recruited U.S. Central Intelligence Agency analyst Alicia Roberts, and Federal Police Officer Isaac Santo, the game would star newly-formed partners who have opposing world views that stem from their radically different surroundings and life experiences.
The true subject of the story would surround what it means to uphold the law in an environment which operates under very different social expectations and values, following decades of violence and crime being a daily occurrence for everyday citizens. Must law adapt to the lawless? The protagonist is the vehicle through which players physically, emotionally and intellectually interact with this premise, as every obstacle in their investigation would reflect this conundrum.
Alicia Roberts, 27:
Alicia, a young and obsessive personality, has devoted her entire life to pursuing a career path in national security. She is a person who initially finds relationships suffocating, preferring to work alone. Her narrative, as the case develops, would grapple with the culture clash in El Cruce, where the balance between law and disorder is so disorientating and seemingly illogical that residents of the Mexican state do not flinch at the sounds of gunshots in the far distance, whilst newspapers graphically showcase the violent deaths of its citizens on the front page.
Having no life beyond work, in contrast to her partner (someone she initially thinks little of, because of how he behaves and who he associates with), would be an engaging starting point for her character arc given that the player needs somewhat of a blank slate in order to identify with Alicia. Like John Marston and Niko Bellic, hints at a backstory which are unearthed over time are much more engaging than a full account of the protagonist’s past. Developers must let the player fill in the gaps based on a character’s choice of words and how they think. Ultimately the arc would conclude that there is more to life than work, that Alicia does need downtime, but that her job demands she avoid distractions of everyday life. Perhaps sorrowfully, her experiences in the game entrench the belief that her duty comes first – even if the outcomes of such sacrifice are not easy to understand or reconcile.
I think it would be interesting to have a protagonist more interested in the lives of fourteen foreign nationals than the countless native lives ruined by the same endemic problems within El Cruce’s society. Colliding with her partner, Isaac, on these issues would be a good use of in-car conversations when driving to a crime scene or the next lead in the investigation. Rather than just spout exposition to solve the case, even the smallest of details which reveal more about the criminal’s motivation (and perhaps the victims’ consent, should the game venture down a more conspiratorial route) would reveal something about the difficulty Alicia and Isaac have in accepting their reality for what it is – and that they’re powerless to alter its course.
Moreover, Alicia’s experience and training, as well as the player’s free will, would be more antagonistic towards the cartels. Believing she will only be in El Cruce for the duration of the investigation, and that they must suffer for their crimes, Alicia would impulsively act on a more short-term basis, not showing much hesitation when confronting suspects or pulling out her firearm when threatened by members of the cartel.
Isaac Santo, 43:
Conversely, Isaac – a man who is fiercely proud of his wife and child, as well as the life he leads in the community of El Cruce – represents the logical conclusion of the family man in this partially-hostile landscape. A compromised Federal Police Officer, one who is both underpaid and undertrained, Isaac represents the systemic corruption amongst Mexico’s police force without necessarily being an evil-doer himself. He’s accustomed to turning a blind eye to the cartel’s activities, having been threatened on multiple occasions given that criminals know who he is and where his family reside. Certain sections of gameplay could even see Isaac complete errands for local crooks or those with an affiliation with certain criminal syndicates, which Alicia could accompany him on (outside of the main investigation). Although preventive and judicial policing are usually kept separate, it is important that Isaac’s role becomes much more militarised by working alongside soldiers and prosecutors through joint patrols. The game has the opportunity, therefore, for Alicia to consult with Isaac when pursuing certain leads and employing a more militaristic strategy without undoing the authenticity of the world around them or the environs of El Cruce.
When assigned to assist in Alicia’s international operation to find the missing fourteen, serving as a guide and translator when following leads which will solve the crime, a great deal of friction would be evident between Isaac and Alicia. Disagreeing with her belief that the ends justify the means, Isaac should cause the player to doubt themselves as they behave as the leading authority in El Cruce. Likewise, Alicia will pull up Isaac on his contradictions as a man when taking bribes and letting small-scale criminals get away with crimes for fear of kicking the hornet’s nest and doing the job he’s paid for.
‘Doing this job, you gotta dig through the bodies buried beneath your
feet just to reach for the fresh ones. At least we hope.’ – Isaac Santo
These conflicting approaches to law and order allow for more versatile, and less by-the-book, opportunities to seek answers and pressure criminal organisations into giving up information without having to repeatedly interview and arrest individuals. The game’s mechanics would open up to reflect the more dangerous threat posed by the world, and change Alicia’s own understanding of justice. Seeing the methods Isaac employs, and then justifying them, would even cause the player to second guess what the best plan of action is when searching for the missing fourteen. Having to complete an operation off-book and lie to your superiors about how you acquired information leading to certain arrests would be excellent. L.A. Noire always saw players put the pressure on others, but when the tables are turned and you are forced to think up an alibi off the top of your head then suddenly the mechanic becomes that more versatile and unexpected. There could even be a criminal hierarchy which is available to see back at headquarters, with players being encouraged by agencies both at home and abroad to pursue certain lieutenants and bring down criminal structures. This technique would be more suited to a game in which international agencies are responsible for bringing down crime in a certain area through any means necessary, which is certainly interesting, but there’s a danger it would become repetitive and miss the nuance of the slow-boiled detective piece briefly detailed in this pitch.
Having to trust in your partner, knowing that he’s voluntarily compromised himself whilst working in service of the cartels to protect his family, would add for a relatable contrast between the two upholders of the law without simply relegating Isaac’s character to an easily-tempted, greedy crook. Being able to justify police corruption as a matter of degrees, focusing on assessment by outcome, and have such thoughts pollute the player’s own mindset when approaching the major case could be very interesting as the plot thickens and the lengths needed to be taken in order to find the kidnapped families alive become more and more apparent.
‘You see a man, see the life he’s built, and judge him. I see a man who
kept it all standing. You shame him for staying strong.’ – Isaac Santo
Building on this notion of memory and how a criminal investigation is perceived by the outside world, perhaps It Always Ends With Blood could explore themes concerning the distribution of truth – both privately and publicly. Having our detectives warp evidence at its source and produce an altered narrative to their respective superiors, and therefore the broader public, in the interests of both protecting and hindering other parties provides the means to better portray human nuance and sophisticated suspense in a compelling, naturalistic manner.
Once again, this would boil the plot down to the ultimate question: should law and order be fixed and rigorously enforced, or must it adapt to changes in circumstances when applied to a failed state? Can police officers turn up to the leader of a cartel, throw the book at him, arrest him, and expect the organisation he heads to collapse upon his removal? If the answer is no, then should the player actively target such a person and hold them responsible for the city’s various crimes at all, nevermind the missing fourteen? Adding moral dilemmas to the main narrative was something both Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption explored, so I see this as a more interactive evolution of those games whilst taking advantage of the detective genre’s main mechanics. Speaking of which…
iii) The Overarching Gameplay Mechanics
The core mechanics of L.A. Noire would be unchanged. You’d still drive to crime scenes, speak with the police officers and witnesses at the scene of the crime, and engage in car chases should suspects run away – perhaps culminating in shootouts where the task is to injure your key suspect and keep them alive for questioning (as was the case with bounties in Red Dead Redemption). However, the game itself would be much more non-linear. And it would all stem from the in-game map of El Cruce.
For example, after inspecting the tour bus left stranded at El Cruce’s outer perimeter, players are immediately given three leads to pursue as they adjust to life south of the border and work alongside their shady, temperamental partner who sometimes leaves work early because of his ‘familial responsibilities’ elsewhere.
Using the open-world map as a way of solving the crime, players would have to decide which leads to follow. If they follow Lead A, neglecting to pursue Lead B and C, but it proves to be a red herring, then Leads B and C lose their potency. What were once three equally colourful circles that overlayed the map, would now be replaced with two circles that are far more faded in colour. When players visit these remaining locales, the danger is that crime scenes could have been tampered with or the most pertinent clues are now lost. Suddenly, there is a strategy players must factor into their investigation – not dissimilar from the choices in Telltale’s excellent The Wolf Among Us (perhaps the best game of that ilk, largely due to the fact that the player coexists with a number of suspects in a sheltered community). Where do you go and why? Can you risk leaving a site temporarily unattended?
The result is a trail of clues which reflect the evidence you’ve already collected, with the mission structure serving as more of a mosaic than a linear investigation. The goal is not to find ‘the truth’ as such, but more appropriately construct a ‘plausible narrative’ of events when following the various trails which lead you to the kidnapped (or enslaved, if not deceased) tourists. Simply put, if Alicia is after the cartels because a number of young men from that organisation have been linked to driving the bus out into the middle of nowhere through security cameras along the main motorways, then the failed business interests of certain kidnapees will be buried – making it difficult for players to conceive of the grand narrative before them because they don’t have all the evidence. Is every one of the fourteen a victim? Is this a revenge attack to frame certain cartels and relinquish their control over certain portions of the city? Did the police help conceive this scheme?
The nature of this approach means that certain players will have key suspects based on the evidence they have found which other players don’t even know exist. Is it possible to discover the whole truth in one playthrough? Perhaps. But if more than one organisation is involved, and a larger crime is at play behind the scenes of this alleged kidnapping, then unravelling the crime in layers at least allows for a greater deal of player agency in how you approach the situations you are presented with. The experience is still carefully driven and paced by the developers, you just unearth it at your own pace and with your own prejudices – much like any investigator. If players receive flak for adamantly pursuing criminals that simply cannot be tied to the case, either because they have a good lawyer or Alicia lacks the necessary evidence, players might even try and subvert the law to implicate individuals and serve ‘justice’ through more illegal means (as proposed by Isaac, if not other members of the local police force or criminal bodies).
The game also allows for broader, almost militaristic, operations to be enacted by the police – in keeping with the approach taken by Mexican authorities. Imagine a Grand Theft Auto V-style heist mechanic in which players decide how they’re going to surround a potential witness and arrest them. Are the police officers working alongside you trustworthy, or will they tip off the suspects and alert them to the investigation? This means that the game doesn’t need a hundred missions but instead must focus on a smaller number of multi-faceted moments which carry the depth necessary to be engaging and challenging. Less is more, on the action front, I feel. It makes violence more impactful.
Do you keep Isaac close, making sure he doesn’t subvert your will, or do you trust him to pursue individuals on the other side of the city at the same time? If he returns after you’ve completed your side of the operation, only to throw his hands up and report how ‘they got away’, the player would doubt whether Isaac is telling the truth. Alternatively, is the evidence he collected deliberately misleading the player, or was Isaac fed it from another source? Players could even let Isaac drive to a crime scene in the future, questioning him as he does so – much like you would interviewing a suspect. At the very least, by positioning the player as an alien in El Cruce’s society, someone who is unaccustomed to the cultural norms, they must rely on the intel they are given by the CIA but also the advice and views of Isaac. Setting up a situation in which the player is untrusting of their partner is important, as it adds greater complexity and interactivity to the partnership and is in keeping with the noirish spirit of the title.
iv) Side Activities, World Building and Broader Characterisation
Balancing the drama and action of working this case and completing your police work is all well and good, but players need opportunities to deviate from the main path and relax every now and then. The original L.A. Noire offered this through one-note, single-scene sequences where players would snoop a perp or foil a bank robbery, but they were uninspired and tiresome distractions for the most part. Hunting down newspapers which added to the overarching narrative were interesting, but finding the 95 hidden cars and 40-plus tourist sites served as grinding for the sake of exploration.
Not every game needs to follow the Grand Theft Auto formula, but if players are to live the life of a detective then they must balance their choices at work with their freedom at home. Counterbalancing the heft of the plot with more light-hearted, character-building moments would result in a much more enjoyable experience which is balanced throughout its entire playtime. Grand Theft Auto V succeeded in doing this, at the cost of the main storyline and due to it being a more comedic adventure than L.A. Noire.
Something as simple as engaging in side activities, such as going bowling or eating out, could be spent not just with Isaac but also his family to give better dimensions to his character and your relationship with the man you think you know. But the more I consider how we can utilise the open-world dynamic beyond which leads you follow and how players coordinate the extraction of certain VIP targets, several problems are exposed.
v) Problems with It Always Ends With Blood as a Successor to L.A. Noire
The fundamental issue with this setting and premise is the language barrier. A lot of my suggestions to make the game more engaging have been to manipulate systems of power and give a context for more slow-paced, methodical operations (rather than sprawling shootouts), but it was all under the assumption that the existing tenets of investigation remain. The language barrier would prevent this. Max Payne 3 did an excellent job by acknowledging the language barrier and having it confuse Max, but that is not what’s needed here – unless Alicia is simply going to observe rather than act.
The rarely acknowledged genius of Rockstar’s open worlds is that they are written for multiple perspectives. The hilarious radio chat shows hosted by Lazlow and the parodies of organisations and rampant consumerism through in-game adverts offer more than the main quest as a perspective on the world. L.A. Noire was about the work and nothing else. Its static world reflected this. Perhaps if there were multiple characters then the world of It Always Ends With Blood could have more opportunities for variety, but the plot would become too convoluted when accounting for varying impressions of the same crime and world.
As much as I profess wanting to blur the lines between mission and off-mission content, the reality is that it would be very difficult to take your foot off the gas in a game like this. Any side activities would still have to be structured events, often spent with Isaac and his family, meaning the game would be constantly fixed on these two individuals. What, then, is the point of being an open-world experience? You can’t understand the locals, and the activities require other characters to constitute as character building. It’s a tricky conundrum to solve, but it is not insurmountable.
Perhaps more pressing is the action-orientated nature of the world and the various additions I have cited. By having a society whose criminals are stereotypically renowned for evil acts of mindless violence, the more measured approach of L.A. Noire – which bound suspects to the law and ensured they came in for questioning – is sacrificed in the process. Once you allow for a more volatile style of gameplay, where reporters or criminals can be visited off-duty and roughed up, the game design sets the precedent for the player to abruptly overreact. The story could reflect this, of course, but is it appropriate to pull off a Team America-like stunt only for the game to argue ‘one must fight fire with fire’?
Another question is whether It Always Ends With Blood is a true representation of American noir fiction. The most recent noir drama I experienced was 2015’s second season of True Detective, which set its eyes to the remote industrial fringe of Vinci, California and Los Angeles more fully. As much as I enjoyed certain moments, each of the four protagonists’ shared demons stripped any investment I had for their plight because they lacked any emotional depth. A vengeful, self-centered and self-destructive detective, whose wrath and violence lacked any real direction, is not an interesting character after a couple of hours’ playtime. It was by forgetting the hallmarks of the genre, concentrating instead on moody lighting, Lynchian abstraction, and a relentless fetishisation of criminality, that resulted in True Detective defining its plot and characters on the superficial.
It is for this reason that staging a more modern spiritual successor against modern crises in Latin America – perhaps by way of injecting an excess of action to hold otherwise disparate investigatory gameplay mechanics together – that It Always Ends With Blood is also looking for the easy way of making the moments in between interrogations and piecing together strands of evidence on your map more exciting.
Certain writers champion themselves for producing non-sexualised female characters in film, television and games, yet arm their characters with firearms and make them fight men in conditions which do not reflect real life. Restrained by game mechanics, they mimic male characters who – especially in Rockstar Games’ titles, with the likes of Michael, Franklin and Trevor – are antiheroes. Rockstar doesn’t glorify its antiheroes.
While the cast of Bioshock was rightly written in response to the era it was set (with Andrew Ryan being a rich white man capable of building Rapture), whereas the rebel leader in Bioshock Infinite was understandably a black woman (representing the most repressed group in the city of Columbia), The Last of Us had to a) eliminate 80 per cent of humanity in order to create a more egalitarian society (one built on violence, not law) and b) had to fastforward time to create an environment where class, gender and race did not factor into who was a survivor and who was not. What this means is that you can’t just throw a certain type of character into any given situation and state that it represents diversity. As such, if It Always Ends With Blood is going to have a law-abiding protagonist (one who happens to be female in a department run by men) we need to appreciate what this means for story and gameplay.
Using True Detective as an example once more, Detective Bezzerides’ damaged and damaging exterior mistook the ‘hard woman’ cliche for a strong, meaningful female character. Her general lack of levity produced an unending morose tone which further complicated a labyrinthine and ultimately uninteresting murder mystery which no one wanted, nor perhaps even needed, to solve. There is a danger, especially given the long-form storytelling of games, that the hostile environment of El Cruce would become a parody of itself and lack the sincerity needed to give the pulpy, hard-boiled noir atmosphere a reason to exist.
As such, perhaps being more in kin with the period aesthetic of the original L.A. Noire, a more direct sequel should transport itself to another U.S. city and historic era, whilst also concentrating on characters and mechanics which break away from the wallowing, atrophied modern noir. Which leads me onto a more plausible successor to the 1940s’ detective drama.
‘A More Far-Reaching, Rust-Belt Noire?’
If noir was a genre born in the early 1940s in response to the changing racial and gender landscape of post-war America, repeatedly impaling the American Dream by exposing the weaknesses and contradictions in the American psyche, then arguably the spiritual successor to L.A. Noire must honour these origins by representing a game which removes the garish masks of the modern world to confront the horrors beneath when challenging notions of gender, race and identity.
Although the original game dealt with fear of the ‘other’ through Phelps’ love interest, which stemmed from the Red Scare and Hollywood’s eventual blacklisting by Senator McCarthy, such themes are most prevalent in the much-maligned historical era where noir is said to have died: the 1970s and 1980s. Despite the political landscape allegedly being more cut-and-dry following the fight for civil rights and second-wave feminism, such decades are rife for noir-inspired material when illuminated by revisionist history of the post-civil rights decades. This is my current area of historical interest, and would serve to be a more nuanced exploration of the original game’s mechanics and themes whilst entrenching them in a stronger, often neglected, period of modern American history.
Going beyond a backdrop of climbing Cold War fears and the failure of détente, as well as the recognition that social features of the civil rights act have failed due to rising economic inequality, is essential. The reverberating minority revolution of not just African Americans following the riots of the sixties, but also Chicanos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, white ethnics, women and the disabled provides an excellent backdrop to breathe life into the streets of New York, Washington, Boston and so forth. Following in the wake of Black Power to demand the government provide every ethnicity with their civil rights (Yellow Power, Brown Power, Red Power) would be a fantastic backdrop for the chaos and disruption occurring during this period. Driving down the street and seeing hundreds of people marching would be a sight in itself, but chasing a perp through such a scene would be even more exciting. The crime would not necessarily surround these groups, but using the game as a semi-historical document would be thrilling.
By capturing the worst decades of a rustbelt city’s history, amidst economic degradation, deindustrialisation, white flight to the suburbs and the reconfiguration of the American city as a crime-ridden cesspit, encapsulates the hallmarks of the noir genre. Seeing how Native Americans are poorly policed, and how those isolated communities have been persecuted against by the authorities and neglected by the public (beyond the crippling alcoholism and drug addiction), would be seriously influential in capturing the rightward shift on the 1980s and their origins in the 1970s (a decade where, allegedly, ‘it seemed like nothing happened’).
In terms of crimes, the legitimisation of porn as it became a genuine industry, alongside housing crises following the failed assimilation of ethnic minorities into white society, combined with the price of oil resulting in gas workers being robbed and petty crime skyrocketing – the social, political, cultural and economic drama is all here. Even if this game followed the model of the original L.A. Noire, with multiple cases being juggled at once, the variety is there to produce a truly compelling historically-inspired experience. It would also be easier to add some of the grimy themes mentioned in my pitch for It Always Ends With Blood, given the more critical attitudes towards the government and rising local protest at this time.
Stylistically, setting the game over years, rather than compressing such cases into a short-lived career, would also allow the degradation of the urban landscape to come to the fore. My current area of research focuses on the contentions between national and local authority with regard to ‘right to shelter’ laws across Washington, D.C. in the ’80s and ’90s. Seeing a game which features the capital city and confronts its contradictions would be especially unique for the industry without sacrificing its strengths as being an engaging piece of entertainment. Ultimately, the game can be modern without being set in the present day – distinguishing itself from the likes of Grand Theft Auto, much like Red Dead Redemption succeeded in achieving back in 2010.
Although I’m leaning more towards the 1970s and 1980s detective drama, both evolutions of L.A. Noire that I have envisioned rid the complications which plagued the original game. Gone are players being left bewildered, if not bored, when repeatedly asking:
- What are the stakes? Why should I feel motivated to complete my duty?
- Who are the goons I’m chasing down or shooting? If it comes down to this, having failed to talk them out of their actions, how does this altercation help flesh out the broader investigation?
- Why does my protagonist’s past matter, without it having to be forcibly tied to the overarching mystery I am investigating? Why do the protagonist’s various relationships matter?
- Why is the game set in an open world, besides the lengthy drive to crime scenes or homes in which suspects could be interviewed?
Overall, I do feel that players should be challenged when juggling various leads and hen constructing their own interpretation of events. Regardless of whether the sequel took a radically different approach, through examination of cartels and the impossibility of expelling justice in certain ways to certain people, or a more historically-informed analysis of the disintegration of the post-industrial world, there are plenty of opportunities for fun in these worlds.
The complications are bound to exist, given the genre’s imposition of restraint and order on a character who players could easily turn bad when running into pedestrians and so forth. But if the player is rooted in the reality of the world, and immersed in the task at hand, this genre can be a truly engaging and gripping experience – and an asset to the interactive medium. Whatever happens, I hope we see more once Rockstar Games have more authority over the direction of the project from beginning to end.